rb-dinerVacant since May, the former East Side Cafe is getting set to reopen as the Red Bank Diner. (Click to enlarge)

rcsm2_010508By DUSTIN RACIOPPI

The last time redbankgreen published a rundown of Red Bank’s downtown economy, it was a rather dour picture sprinkled with a sense of optimism.

While clusters of storefronts worked better as mirrors than as shopping destinations, RiverCenter Executive Director Nancy Adams was bullish on the borough’s economy, saying the large number of vacancies in town could be parlayed into new, exciting ventures for businesses to infuse new blood into the heart of Red Bank.

Seems Adams had a bead on the future.

Nearly a dozen new businesses have either moved in or are set to open their doors in the next couple of months, Adams said.

“There’s stuff going on. It’s kind of nice,” she said.

Here’s what’s churning in Red Bank:

hi-defAfter months hidden behind brown paper, Hi-Def should open around New Year’s, a manager said. Below, the future home of Hammer House indoor cycling. (Photo above by Dustin Racioppi; click to enlarge)

• Twenty-eight-year-old Evie Cassese opened up her first business, P.S. Poppyseeds, in the English Plaza strip last week. Yes, it’s another women’s boutique, but Cassese, of Lavallette, said her shop isn’t just all jewelry and perfumes. For example, she carries Mushmina handbags, which can’t be found anywhere else in the state, she said.

“I went to stores in Red Bank and saw what they had and tried to do the opposite,” Cassese said.

• Within the next couple of weeks there should be a new diner in town.

New York natives Manny Eliopoulos and Loui Kanellos are working on sprucing up the space where the East Side Diner operated for years until it closed in May. The business partners renamed it the Red Bank Diner, and Kanellos told redbankgreen he won’t deviate from the traditional diner format of breakfast, lunch and dinner available during normal hours. Kanellos said he anticipates opening the diner’s doors in the next two or three weeks.

“I feel very good about it. The area’s very nice,” he said. “I think we’re going to do good over there.”

• Also on the eatery front, a Vietnamese restaurant, Pho Le, is moving into the space at 90 Broad Street — directly across from soon-to-open Temple Chinese restaurant — formerly the home of Haagen-Dazs. Pho Le’s owner said there are still permits to obtain and a heavy buildout to accomplish, which will put an opening somewhere around three months from now.

• Opening sooner than that, probably in early February, will be The Cheese Cave, at 14 Monmouth Street. Owner Stephen Catania is working on setting up the space to display high-end, artisan cheeses and an assortment of gourmet products, like handmade jams, bread and spices, he said.

Catania, a former chef who lives in Middletown, said his intent is to introduce people to the art of cheese-making and also further educate those who have an interest in cheese. Red Bank, he said, is a perfect location to begin his second career — especially now.

“It’s been said that cheese is going to be to this time frame what coffee was to the ’90s,” Catania said. “I hope so.”

• Also on track to open in February is Blue Water Seafood on Broad Street. Owner Jimmy Vastardis has big plans for the two-story spot. Kitchen equipment is on order, he said, while he is working on the layout and menu. Vastardis said the exposed-brick south wall of the restaurant will feature an open kitchen, seafood display and water tank for lobsters.

Vastardis, who’s owned Blue Water Seafood in East Brunswick since 1990, said the Red Bank menu will closely resemble that restaurant’s, but will be tailored with extras and different dishes so it’s not second fiddle to the original eatery. Aside from being open for lunch and dinner, Vastardis plans on opening for brunch on Saturday and Sundays, plus limited afternoon hours upstairs for tea, coffee and desserts.

It won’t be a secret when Blue Water opens, either, Vastardis said.

“I’m planning on a gallant grand opening — one that I don’t think Monmouth County has seen before,” he said, “but I’m holding that one right now.”

hammerhouse-2• Two more businesses are prepping openings, as well, Adams said. One is at 80 Broad, an indoor cycling center, called Hammer House, and the other is at 37 East Front Street, a custom cake and cupcake merchant, Sugarush. Neither could be reached for this story.

• Also, after a longer-than-anticipated delay in opening, upper-end audio and entertainment equipment dealer Hi-Def is nearing the removal of the brown paper from its windows at 47 Broad. Assistant Manager Tom Still said buildout and a complete overhaul of the space’s wiring significantly delayed the originally-planned April opening, but things are moving along now.

“Hopefully we’re going to take down the paper in the next week,” he said. “It should be ready to go, hopefully, by New Year’s.”

• And here’s one to throw into the rumor hopper: Surf Taco. Jack Anderson, who owns the buildings once occupied by Ashes and, next door, at River’s Edge Cafe, would not confirm if the Mexi-Cali chain is coming to town, or where, but did say it has shown interest in Red Bank.

This appears to be one of the busier times in the downtown merchant mix, and Adams isn’t exactly sure why. Certainly the borough council’s recent lift on payments into the parking deficiency fund could have played a part, she said, but there’s much more to the influx, she said.

“There’s always interest in Red Bank. People are always looking, and I have others that are waiting for the right time,” Adams said. “Red Bank is still a destination for businesses to locate. It’s slowed down with the economy, and many have tried to stay, but people still want to be here.”

With all the activity downtown, Vasteras, who lives in Holmdel, said he wants to be right in the middle of the action and a driving force in bringing Red Bank out of its economic funk.

“I want to show Monmouth County, and especially Red Bank, what we can do here and help the town rebuild again,” he said. “I want people to talk about this town the way they did five, six years ago.”